I can't remember when I first thought of myself as a socialist. Nor can I remember when I didn't think of myself as a 'labour' person. This had nothing to do with the Labour Party, which didn't exist in the Bogside in Derry where I grew up. It referred to the fact that my father was an active and fairly prominent trade unionist and that when elections came round our house voted for whichever independent labour candidate was standing against the nationalists. Everybody around the street would have said of my father, 'Ned McCann oh, he's a labour man.'
The labour candidates around our way were always trade union officials who fancied themselves as politicians, but no matter. It took a bit of gumption to stand against the nationalist consensus which had the full support of the Catholic Church and the Catholic business community.
Labour people did well in the Foyle constituency when they took 30 percent of the vote. That usually included a lot of the 25 percent or so who were Protestants. Some of them may have voted labour just to vote against the nationalists, but a lot were trade unionists and their families who felt themselves natural labour voters. That did push the message home at an early age that to be for labour was to be outside the sectarian categories which defined mainstream politics.
I remember the first time I became aware of how nationalism and sectarianism were closely related and could divide the working class. It was common for trade unionists to meet in the front parlour of our house, 10 Rossville Street. It's knocked down now. It stood at the centre of what was to be the killing ground on Bloody Sunday in 1972. I remember lying in the gutter just a bit along the street that day and watching the paras shooting from the corner of Glenfada Park and John Young crumpling down dead and thinking in the middle of my confusion and fear, 'They're shooting from right where our house used to be.'
But anyway, it was a regular occurrence that there'd be eight or ten people in our parlour at night talking about union affairs. My father was an electrician's mate, working at the British navy base on the Foyle, and was secretary of the local ETU branch. He was also a member of the Derry Trades Council for many years.
One of the 'traditional' union controversies in Ireland has to do with 'British based' unions. We still have unions based on the 32 counties of Ireland, unions confined to the 26 counties of the Southern state, a few unions which only operate in the Six Counties, 'UK' unions and unions which cover the entirety of these islands. It's a product of history. Down through the years it's provided sectarian politicians and union opportunists with no end of chances for demagogy.
The biggest block of trade unionists in Derry were the women workers in the shirt factories. It was standard practice in the Bogside for girls to leave school and go straight into 'the factory'. I was at quite an advanced age before I realised that a 'factory' didn't have to mean a place where shirts were produced and that 'factory workers' weren't overwhelmingly women. At lunchtime and in the afternoon Rossville Street would be flooded with women walking home from the factory.
There's a line in Phil Coulter's terrible song about Derry, 'The Town I Loved So Well' the local joke is that he loved it so well he's bought half of it 'The men on the dole played a mother's role/Washed the children and then walked the dog', which there's a bit of truth in, although women will tell you now that many's the children weren't washed until their mothers came home from the factory.
You couldn't miss the fact that we in the Bogside were Catholics and were done down for that reason. Catholics were a two thirds majority in Derry but the voting was rigged so that the Unionists always controlled the corporation, which is why we lived in very bad and overcrowded conditions with no hope of a new house. That, of course, is the main reason the great majority in the area voted nationalist.
The women were in a 'UK union', the Tailor and Garment Workers' Union. Then, in the early 1950s, the 32 county Irish Transport and General Workers' Union, the union founded by James Connolly, began making a push and started recruiting in the factories. There was a complicated issue here, in that the women production workers, stitchers, patent turners and so on, were overwhelmingly Catholic whereas cutters and supervisors were mainly men and mainly Protestant. The grades dominated by the men were better paid.
However, the way the ITGWU put the issues was in terms of it being wrong for Irish Catholics to be in a Protestant English union. A lot of the factory workers joined the ITGWU, both on this basis and because they were justifiably annoyed at the situation their own union had tolerated for so long. But just as many stayed with the Tailor and Garment Workers. This was a very bitter dispute. I remember scores of women fighting in the street, hitting one another and tearing at one another's hair. I remember our door being battered because some of the women who stayed in the 'British' union had rushed into our house to escape. My father was 100 percent against the ITGWU. Connolly would have turned in his grave, he said.
The split bedevilled the unions in Derry for a long time. My father and his mates would go through the ins and outs of it for years afterwards. And of course the pay differentials were never dealt with. Grievances about discrimination in promotions and grading were eventually met, up to a point, by the rise of the civil rights movement in the late 1960s, not primarily by the unions which were even less able or inclined to handle the problem for now being split along sectarian lines.
It's hard to recall how clearly I learned these lessons at the time. I was only about ten. But they are in my memory from that time. It isn't an analysis imposed looking back. It's more something I forgot for years, and then remembered again.